Croatia must make sure World Cup heartbreak leads to long-term success
MOSCOW -- Luka Modric collected his golden ball award, accepted the congratulations of Gianni Infantino and Vladimir Putin, and set off down the line of well-wishers in inscrutable fashion. Next to hail the World Cup's best player was French president Emmanuel Macron and then, replete with red-and-white Croatia shirt, came somebody who could not wait to see him. It was his country's president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, and if Modric was keeping his emotions locked away, the politician was happy to let it all out. She clasped Modric, this remarkable symbol of a young nation, in a tight embrace and visibly fought back the tears.
Statesmanlike behaviour is overrated at times like this. Besides, it was a time for hugs. Around 15 minutes earlier, as Croatia's players faced the massed red-and-white checked shirts behind the Luzhniki Stadium's south-easterly goal, Dejan Lovren had gone around and hugged them one by one. There were commiserations and consolatory words, but it was Ivan Rakitic, his teammate of the past eight years, whom Lovren held the longest. One is 30 years old and the other just turned 29; two players nearing the end of their peak years, who had just experienced the sport's apex.
What could all four, lost in a moment none of them could have foreseen, have been thinking?
For Grabar-Kitarovic it was, presumably, an bubbling over of intense pride in a 27-year-old country and its soaring journey to the top. For Modric, there will have been the burning, deep-seated frustration of a winner who had come so close to writing himself and his national team into football's pantheon but may never get another chance. Perhaps Lovren and Rakitic, surveying the scene in that tribune, were wondering too whether anything in their careers could hit this level again.
They had given everything, wrung every last drop from tired bodies and minds while keeping France honest to the end of a match they had largely dominated but ultimately, Zlatko Dalic's players had fallen just short.
"I'm feeling big emotion," the Croatian FA president, Davor Suker, told ESPN FC after he had congratulated their players in the dressing room, with the implications of the defeat to France beginning to sink in. "Looking at the score, I think it's justice. You need to say congratulations to the French players and coach; I think the best team won today."
That was the wider theme of Croatia's immediate reaction: no recourse to an untimely and hugely frustrating VAR decision at 1-1 -- "We need to respect VAR and it's bad luck for us, that's all I can say," said Suker -- no desire to sling mud or leave the tournament with a sour taste.
"You must be dignified in defeat and respect the scoreline: that was my message to my players," Dalic explained in his post-match news conference. At a World Cup final, it is the best way to be: everyone knew what had turned the game and Dalic himself said the penalty that gave France their second goal should not have been given in a final, but also that this was no time to dwell on the negatives.
Instead, for Croatia it is a time to look forward and see how this experience can be used in a positive sense. Watching Modric and Rakitic control the midfield for sizeable chunks of a World Cup final, aided out wide by the excellent Ivan Perisic, brought with it a certain kind of thrill: it was like a crystallisation of everything we ever knew about such world-class talents, an affirmation that pure footballing ability like this can eventually thrive on the stage it deserves.
But it was also laced with a tinge of urgency: If this was the logical high point for a marvellous generation of players, what comes next?
Dalic, who has worked wonders with this team in just nine months and was deservedly applauded on his way out of the post-match news conference, has been vocal in recent days to push for better infrastructure in Croatian football and it was a theme Suker returned to in conversation afterwards.
"Now the politicians will have time to decide when we have our first national stadium," said Suker. "I will be the happiest president in the world if we have a little help on the infrastructure, with constructing official pitches. It's not easy. We want to build a national [training] camp but if you haven't got permission, you can't build."
Perhaps that question is one for Grabar-Kitarovic and her colleagues. Croatia would certainly help itself if it could underpin the lavish talents it routinely produces with a solid supporting structure. If there is a time to look long-term then it is surely now, when the country's footballing stock could not be any higher.
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The current side has players who will be ready to lead in 2022 -- Ante Rebic, the 24-year-old winger, had a fine tournament -- but there is certainly a generational gap beneath Modric's vintage and the challenge is to make sure Croatia are competing to this standard at future World Cups rather than hanging on the warm, fuzzy memory of 2018 two decades from now.
Then again, it is sometimes as just as well to live in the moment.
"It's the World Cup -- why are we here, why are we fighting?" Suker asked rhetorically. "It's for the country, for the flag, for the shirts."
Rakitic had spoken before the final of having 4.5 million players on the pitch, in line with the country's population. That was how they had performed, too, leaving nothing behind, driving forward even at 4-1 down and earning the slither of hope Hugo Lloris' slip against Mario Mandzukic briefly gave them. As the clock wound down towards 90 minutes, those thousands of travelling fans, by now accepting the reality of defeat, burst into long, defiant song. Nobody, at that point, will have been giving the slightest consideration to training pitches or youth academies: If the very end goal of sport is to scale its summit, was this not exactly what Croatia had almost achieved?
"We are a bit sad but we have to be proud as well," said Dalic. However they displayed it, Grabar-Kitarovic, Modric, Lovren, Rakitic and every other Croatian in the stadium would have felt a similar way. This was a night to hold heads high; when the new day dawns, the task will be to make sure those feelings gave way to long-lasting hope.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.